The Scorpio Races, by Maggie Stiefvater

The Scorpio Races

What It’s About

A lonely island, an annual race, and deadly magical horses.

Why I Think You’d Like It

First, a personal confession. I’ve wanted to read a fantasy novel about water horses for ages. If you don’t know, they are a creature, with variations throughout Celtic mythology, that approaches humans in the form of a beautiful horse in order to drag them into the water, often to eat them. I love the incongruence of an elegant horse and a vicious water monster, but it’s either a concept most authors are unaware of, or unsure what to do with.

Maggie Stiefvater has become one of my favorite authors, precisely because of how well she takes magical premises that could be a bit too bizarre and makes them not only natural, but real, raw and heartfelt. As a kid, I went through a serious horse fanatic phase. I loved the “we’ve got to win the big race to save the farm!” plot and the “I work with horses and love this particular horse so much, but alas someone else owns it” plot and of course the “look at these two protagonists who both totally deserve to win, you really want them to win but it’s got to be one or the other, I’ll torture you for the next two hundred pages mwahahahaha” plot. So, for me, I’d love this book just for mashing up all that with a tragically underused mythological creature.

But it’s so much more on top of that.

It’s one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever read. It’s one of the most frightening fantasy novels I’ve ever read. It’s one of the most atmospheric gothic novels I’ve ever read. It’s a book of blood and nerves and wind and salt water tears. It’s one I want to read over, and over, and over and over again, until I’ve memorized every beautiful phrase.

I think you’ll love it.

Content Warnings

The plot revolves around flesh eating magical horses, so there’s gore. It’s not even violence that you should be concerned about. There’s very little, except for a few race scenes, and then things happen so fast it’s like the prose equivalent of shaky cam (and I mean that as a compliment; she does a great job making you feel the chaos while still letting you follow the action). It’s just that if you don’t want to read weirdly poetic descriptions of viscera washed up on the beach, this isn’t the book for you.

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Reviewing Adventures in Odyssey as an Atheist: Back to Bethlehem, Part 1

I’m back from the land of Nanowrimo! Thanks to everyone for your patience, and we will now resume the political theme, with an episode that just happens to be seasonal.

This Christmas special opens with Chris interviewing Dr. Julius Schnitzelbanker, a stereotypical mad scientist with an annoyingly nasal voice. He has an invention that transmogrifies random objects into commercialized holiday paraphernalia, like tinsel and eggnog cartons and shit. He brags about the money he’ll make off of this, and Chris tsk tsks, because clearly he doesn’t get the True Meaning of Christmas (TM). But this is just a silly cold open frame device thingy, so they don’t have time to really get into it. Instead Chris uses his own device to transmogrify him into a Tinkerbell ornament.

Well, whatever we’re supposed to learn from that, I’m sure it will tie neatly into the main themes of the episode.

The episode proper opens with Whit making a new Nativity display. He wants some reference photos, so Connie and Eugene are posing in costume. While they pose, they rib each other over how silly they feel in their first century robes and tunics. Eugene mentions not having a period accurate beard, and Connie teases him for not being able to grow one. He immediately takes serious offense and lectures her on how, in the first century, she wouldn’t be allowed to speak to him that way. She would be required to speak only when spoken to, cause that’s how things were for the womenfolk.

Uhhhh… WTF?

Connie rebuts that she is playing Mary and Mary was special. She’s missing the obvious “last I checked, this wasn’t the first century” response, but hey, we’ve all had staircase wit. Eugene says that he bets she thinks Mary also had a halo and gave birth in a nice clean stable with no labor pains and the animals smelled nice and the baby never cried. Wow, way to strawman her, dude. Connie, caught completely off guard and being a genuine fan of the Hollywood Nativity, goes with “well, who knows, because God,” as her counterargument. Look, nobody said she was a candidate for the debate team.

Connie and Eugene often get into silly arguments that escalate quickly, but even for them, this is ridiculous. Whit finally intervenes. He says that obviously Connie struck a nerve, but bringing up antiquated gender norms to get on her nerves is not an okay response. They both need to take a deep breath, think about how this conversation made them feel, and then share that with each other and really listen, like two people who are friends and adults.

Oh wait. That’s what I would have said if I were Whit. No, that’s not what he says at all. He says this all important historical accuracy question should be settled with a trip in the Imagination Station.

Wait, what? Whaaaaaaat?

First of all, the historical Nativity is not even close to the important thing going on. The important thing is that Eugene and Connie are being assholes, Eugene in particular, as he is being sexist as well as petty. Second of all, even if historical accuracy was the issue, your solution is “let’s see what my magic hallucination machine says?”

Just… Whaaaaaaaaaaaaat????

But naturally, both Eugene and Connie are totally on board with this. The Imagination Station drops them in ancient Bethlehem, where they see a crowd around a young zealot shouting about Roman oppression and coming change.

Man, I haven’t seen such detailed historical accuracy since Monty Python’s Life of Brian.

An innkeeper named Benjamin fears that this chaos will bring Roman attention and ruin his business. He breaks up the crowd. Eugene thinks Benjamin might be a good lead on the whole Mary and Joseph situation, and runs off to speak to him. Connie, meanwhile, tells Judah, the zealot, that she doesn’t think his approach of screaming at people is likely to be helpful. He immediately scoffs and asks what a woman would know about it. She’s not taking that bullshit from a first century hologram, so she starts listing all the things she can do that he probably can’t. Judah is lost for words, mostly because she’s talking about oil changes and making double decker sundaes and he is completely lost.

Then she starts ranting about guys like Eugene treating her like she’s just a human tool for jobs that are beneath them. Just as she does, Eugene himself turns up, and announces that Connie will be working at Benjamin’s inn. How did this come about so quickly? Oh, Eugene just told Benjamin that Connie is his servant girl and he has the right to pawn her off at his convenience. You know, like slavery, but we’re saying servant because it’s a kid’s show.

Why has Eugene done this? Well, Benjamin told him about a weird old guy named Hezekiah, who rants about the coming Messiah a lot. Eugene wants to go find Hezekiah, and insists that Connie can’t come with him, because women, wandering the streets, totally not cool back then.

What exactly is supposed to happen to her? She’s in a virtual reality program.

Yeah, there’s this whole thing in Imagination Station episodes where the characters act like they have actually gone back in time and there is actual shit at stake? I guess it makes sense. Games are more fun if you pretend they are real, and this is supposed to be fun. But on the other hand, games are also more fun when you know you won’t be harmed. Whit explicitly said this was a program he had already been working on. The Imagination Station is for kids. So are we supposed to believe that Whit programmed a lot of sexual harassment in to teach little girls that they had to be afraid to roam old timey streets alone? Or just that Eugene is letting his sexist perceptions color his expectations for what he and Connie will experience? I dunno. Let’s see which interpretation is better supported by events as they unfold.

Anyway, the job at the inn introduces Connie to one of the two main things she will be doing this episode; performing menial chores while grumbling about gender. The other thing will be dodging sexual harassment.

Man, I wish I was kidding.

Her first stalker comes when a pair of Roman officers show up. Captain Felix is just concerned with getting a room. General Lucanus is just concerned with informing Connie that she has the look of a princess, rather than a serving girl. Oh, but he can’t tell her that to her face. She’s a lowly female common person. Instead he turns to Captain Felix and pointedly talks about how hot Connie is. Nothing turns a girl on like talking about her like she’s a piece of art in a museum. And I say girl, because Connie is canonically fifteen or sixteen at this point in the series. She is also clearly put off by this, but neither Roman acknowledges her reaction at all.

Eugene returns to the inn, and tells Connie he hasn’t found Hezekiah. He thinks that maybe this inn, which they’ve happened to turn up next to, is the one where Mary and Joseph will turn up.

No, really? You think that this virtual reality simulation, made to let you encounter the Nativity, dropped you right where the birth of Jesus would go down? What a stretch.

Eugene’s actual reasons are threefold. The first two are rather transparent efforts by the authors to impress us with their Historical Accuracy (TM). Unfortunately, they get things wrong. First, Eugene says that this inn has real rooms, which wasn’t actually common back then. Typically inns just had large communal hostel-type spaces that the guests all shared. And since the Bible says “there was no room for them at the inn,” the Official Nativity Inn must have had rooms, right? Uh, no, actually. First, even in English, “no room” can mean “we have several rooms and none are available” or “there is no space to cram another person into this general area.” Second, when you are looking at the original Greek, it’s not clear that inn was even the best translation.

Eugene’s second big clue is that this inn has a stable, which they initially overlooked because it’s in a cave instead of a big red barn… yeah. Big red barns would have been an anachronism. Knowing that is not as impressive as you think it is. Also, again, if you read the above link, the whole stable thing itself might be a mistranslation.

Eugene’s final reason for thinking they are already at the right inn? This inn has a massive shining star hanging over it, and everyone’s been talking about it since they arrived. No, really?! You think that might be a clue?

Finally Hezekiah shows up at the inn, talking about stars and Messiahs and signs from the scriptures. Eugene is interested, even though nothing Hezekiah says actually brings up new information to us. It is news to the Roman officers, however. General Lucanus thinks Hezekiah is just a harmless old kook, but Captain Felix hasn’t punched anybody in way too long. He tries to make the case that Hezekiah is a dangerous radical who must be dealt with, even though nobody takes Hezekiah that seriously and he’s not even saying anything directly against the Roman Empire to begin with.

Lucanus is all, “yeah, whatever, I’m gonna go do literally anything else, don’t rough him up too much,” which Felix hears as, “blah blah blah rough him up blah blah.” He starts pushing Hezekiah around, Connie starts yelling for him to stop, and then Chris breaks in to announce that the story will be continued in part two!

Dun dun duuuuuuunnnnn!

They do take the time to wrap up the opening teaser, however. Chris turns Dr. Schnitzelbank back into a human, and after listening to that episode he’s all on board with the spirit of Christmas. Even though nobody talked about the spirit of Christmas at all during that episode. Mary and Joseph haven’t shown up, let alone Jesus. I’m guessing his real reasoning is “say whatever the crazy lady wants, I don’t want to be a Tinkerbell ornament again.”

I too will be continuing the story in part two, so until then, happy holidays!

(that’s right, I said it. I’m a dirty, dirty heathen)

The Universe of Us, by Lang Leav

The Universe of Us

What It’s About

A series of short poems about being in love.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Because these poems made me revisit the feeling of being in love in a way that I hadn’t felt since I was a kid. Because they made me feel, viscerally, types of falling in love that I’d never experienced before. Because they made me look back on the disappointing experiences of love that I had thought of as unworthy of poetry, and see the beauty in them.

Because they’re beautiful and insightful and made me hold my breath. Not figuratively took my breath away. Sometimes, I’d hit the end of a line and stop breathing for a little bit.

Content Warnings

Not applicable

Sticks and Stones and Pens and Swords: An Open Letter to Bill Maher

Dear Bill Maher,

You’ve been behaving yourself lately, as far as I know. You’re a bit of a professional troll, so behaving yourself is a relative term, but you’ve stayed within the bounds of your own bell curve. I’ve been waiting for such an opportunity to talk to you.

Previously, after various PR disasters, I’ve drafted open letters and standard rants to talk to you, most recently when you called yourself a “house n*gger.” Each time, though, I’ve gotten sidetracked to another topic. I have found myself not talking about the particular recent crisis, but a recurring problem that has, for years, blocked me from properly enjoying your show. A problem that underwrites each of your individual controversies, as well as asserting itself throughout your show. A misconception you cling to almost obsessively, and that I have heard many of your fans repeat.

You love the idea that your words can’t hurt anyone.

For example, when you gave an interview to Milo Yiannopoulos, you and he jovially agreed that humor is all just about bonding and jokes are harmless. You even said, “when people laugh, they know it’s true.” You said that, to a man who regularly makes jokes at the expense of transgender people. Who encourages his fans to hurt trans people and even outs them to this hostile audience. So do you agree with the content of his jokes? Do you think his audience’s laughter means we deserve everything he believes about us?

Probably not. Probably you would engage in some special pleading to get out of those accusations. Pardon me, I was getting ahead of myself.

See, most of the time, when you say your words are inherently harmless, you are defending yourself against critics. Someone is saying that something you said is damaging or unfunny or otherwise unacceptable, and you are defanging that assessment. By saying that words cannot possibly cause real harm to anyone, you are making your critics out to be overanxious handwringers. But, by your own logic, why would you even bother to respond?

In other words, if your words cannot cause real harm to your critics, or whoever your critics say you are harming, then their words in turn cannot harm you. If words never hurt anybody, you shouldn’t care when people criticize you.

Well, maybe you are unconcerned. Maybe you just mock your critics because you are a wordsmith and professional troll, so you respond to anything so long as you have a sufficiently witty barb. But I am inclined to think you are concerned, that you think your critics have real power that you must defend yourself from, and I don’t think that defensiveness is unwarranted.

There’s always chance that, for example, when person A points out that your joke or your interview was damaging to person B, some members of your audience will think, “hey, I like person B! Bill Maher sure makes a lot of unnecessary jokes at person B’s expense. I now feel bad for laughing at those jokes.” If this goes on for long enough, people will stop watching your show, to avoid that “I shouldn’t have laughed” feeling. Hell, it’s why I no longer watch, and I’ve heard some people say they are finding it harder and harder to stay a fan.

If this trend continues, you will lose your audience, your ratings will plummet, and HBO will have to decide whether or not you’re worth the loss. There’s a good chance they will decide it is not. And as your style of humor is naturally very contentious, you might find yourself struggling to find another venue that will support you.

That would be inconvenient for you, as you don’t seem to have many skills beyond “sarcastic wordsmith.”

So you fight back, with this weird little magician’s trick. You, afraid of the harm caused by your critics’ words, will claim words are harmless, and that therefore you should never be criticized for your words. With enough wordplay, you disguise your true intent, your audience laughs, and personal financial crisis is averted.

It is fundamentally absurd for any human to claim words do not have power. We survive by the power of language. We use language to gather information, to pass it on to our descendants, to form social bonds that protect us. Words are an evolved life skill, selected for just as fangs and claws and tails are. They don’t deserve to be dismissed as frivolous baubles.

That is not to say that freedom of expression is not important. But we should respect the right to free speech, not like someone who guards a lamb, but like someone who releases a hawk. Words are the tools we use to construct governments and societies, and the ones we use to fix it when it is broken. Therefore we give free speech sovereignty over the law. This does not mean we give people license to say anything without consequence. When we use our words to criticize another person’s words, we are using them exactly they way they should be used. Words are like diamonds. We use them to cut each other, because no other tool is up to the job.

As someone who criticizes your critics, you are not a defender of free speech. You are simply a user of it, and your critics no less so. You are both sparring on equal terms under the law. And, for the record, if your critics do someday put you out of business, it will not be because they are against the game of social discourse. They’ll just have won it. A boxer who claims his victorious opponent is trying to ban tournaments isn’t making an insightful point, but being ridiculous and a sore loser.

You make your living off of the words you say. Respect the power of your tools.

Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith

Flygirl

What It’s About

Ida Mae Jones, a light skinned Black woman, passes as white in order to join the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, in WWII.

Why I Think You’d Like It

Because it’s everything historical fiction should be. The research is excellent, and Sherri L. Smith includes a cool postscript on what real world events inspired various scenes in the novel. The story is moving and emotionally real, but it isn’t just about angst and difficult choices. It’s about female friendships, fulfilling dreams, being part of a cause you believe in, and the sheer joy of flying.

I loved both Ida Mae and all the supporting characters. She bonds with a couple of other quirky misfit girls and they support each other through flight school. She also has a close relationship with her father and brothers, as well as an interesting, tense relationship with her mother, who is afraid Ida Mae will abandon them for a life of passing for white full-time. The complexity of their relationship is raw and relatable. I love how you are made to see both of their points of view. In fact, while there are a few characters who are just straightforward villains, most of the time you can see both sides of a conflict, and feel for everyone involved.

It’s also one of those stories that absolutely needed to be told from within the group. I’ve seen a lot of passing-for-privileged narratives, for all kinds of identities, written from someone of the privileged group, and they’re usually crap. I’d honestly gotten pretty sick of them, but Sherri L. Smith shows how poignant and thought provoking these stories can be when an insider chooses to tell them.

It took me to another time and place, put me through an adventure, and left me thinking about the issues and problems it raised. What more could you ask for?

Content Warnings

Racism towards some of the main characters, or witnessed by them. Otherwise it is fairly tame; the work the WASP do is dangerous, but they aren’t involved in anything gory or graphic.

Pashmina, by Nidhi Chanani

Pashmina

What It’s About: Priyanka, daughter of an Indian single mother, uncovers the story of her past with the help of a magical pashmina.

Why I Think You’d Like It: It’s a beautiful, expressively illustrated graphic novel that is simultaneously simple and profound. With a fairly straightforward story, ideas about love, home, choice, family and the price of dreams were interwoven beautifully and naturally. I was carried from cover to cover in less than a day.

I liked Priyanka a lot. She was a relatable teen girl; good at heart but full of questions and insecurities that she sometimes handles poorly. Her most interesting relationships were between her and various elders, and there wasn’t a simplistic mentor/mentee relationship with any of them. They all had struggles understanding her, she had questions that none of them had perfect answers to, and they still had wisdom to offer her. I was one of those dreamy kids who got on better with adults, and her relationships felt honest on a level that not a lot of authors have captured.

Also, as a fantasy geek, I loved how seamlessly the magic integrated with the real world. It almost felt like magical realism, which I have a serious weakness for; if you liked stories like Beasts of the Southern Wild you will probably love this. I will definitely be looking out for more books by Nidhi Chanani!

Content Warnings: Traumatic events are referenced but nothing is graphic or detailed. I think you’ll be fine.

Harlem Nocturne, by Farah Jasmine Griffin

Harlem Nocturne

What It’s About

This book is equal parts biography and cultural history, focusing on three artists; modern dancer Pearl Primus, novelist Ann Petry, and musician/singer/composer Mary Lou Williams. As it describes their fusion of artistry and activism, it also takes the history of Harlem past it’s 1920s heyday and shows how the cultural and artistic boom evolved into the Civil Rights movement of the 60s.

Why I Think You’d Like It

There are many gaps in our history when it comes to African Americans. You would be forgiven, after reading your average American textbook, for thinking the entire Black community was just cryogenically frozen between the 20s and the 60s. And that’s if you had one of the good ones that mentioned the Harlem Renaissance at all. This book is a fantastic way to begin filling in the gaps. Griffin’s focus may be the 40s, but she also gives context from the 30s and indicates how the changes wrought in WWII set the African American community up to weather the 50s and triumph in the 60s.

Griffin has a fantastic writing style. I never got bogged down in too much detail, nor did I get ever get lost. She’s as engaging as any storyteller; I didn’t just find these women’s lives interesting, but I also cared about them. They came alive on her pages, and I found myself hungry for still more information on them when I was done.

As I read this book, I kept returning to the ideas of the ups and downs of life, and legacy as the ripples we create. There’s also a beautiful mixture of realism and hope here. As the war ended and McCarthyism took hold, many of these women had their work eclipsed, and are still sadly obscure today. Yet the work they did was still important to what would come later. They spoke out, they lived life their way, and they shaped their communities in powerfully positive ways.

The whole book was engaging, thought provoking, and I finished it in about three days because I couldn’t put it down. I can’t recommend it enough, and I will definitely be reading and recommending more of her work. We all need books like this in our lives.

Content Warnings

Some references to lynchings and other anti-black violence, as context for their work. Otherwise you’re fine.

Flying Lessons, by Ellen Oh

Flying Lessons

What It’s About

An anthology coming of age stories, with both authors and protagonists from a diverse range of identities.

Why I Recommend It

Individually, these stories are all great. Though a few touch on sad content, like losing a parent or social isolation, for the most part they are fun and happy. That in and of itself is cool. It’s incredible to see a queer first crush that isn’t angsty, or a disabled kid connecting with his father over wheelchair sports, without anybody pitying or handwringing. And even when I have no personal connection to the identities represented, the stories touch on something fundamental human experience, in a moving and delightful. One of my favorites was the one where the Choctaw uncle tells his nieces and nephews with a tall tale. Folklore plus weird but kindly old people bonding with small children; that is now you make a Lane happy.

Collectively, this is a great introduction to marginalized authors who have long, award winning careers telling diverse stories. None of these stories are overtly political, but the combination tells a message that shouldn’t be political, but sadly is; anyone can tell a human story, and anyone can be the star of one. There is no one way to be the everyman, and isn’t that awesome?

Content Warnings

You’re fine.

Adventures in Odyssey Paused on Account of Nanowrimo

Hi everyone!

I had this awesome plan where I was going to use October to pre-write all three of my AIO episodes, so they’d be out of the way for Nanowrimo. Unfortunately, I was slammed by two absurdly rough weekends in a row, and I spent a good part of my week just trying to survive at work and then recover when I got home. So the posts are, unfortunately, not done.

The good news is that those episodes are already a bit Christmas themed, so maybe it’s lucky that they’re now being saved for December? Maybe? I dunno. I’m very sorry and I’ll try to get some quick bonus posts out during the month, but otherwise it will just be my Monday book reviews.

If you’re doing Nano as well, best of luck to you! For everyone else, have a wonderful month and may your upcoming holidays rock.

A Banquet For Hungry Ghosts, by Ying Chang Compestine

A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts

  • Genre
    • Horror, Folklore
  • Plot Summary
    • In Chinese folklore, one of the classic ghost story forms is of a hungry ghost; a person who, having died hungry, must be fed by the living, or it will feed on them. This is a collection of short, spooky stories based on that tradition, each centered around a dish in an eight-course feast. 
  • Characters
    • Some stories have tragic protagonists, who were victimized in life and return for revenge. Some are despicable, brought to a messy end by their own flaws. Some are clever enough to narrowly avoid a rough fate. Some are sweet and well-meaning, but horribly unlucky. All of them make for excellent stories.
  • Tone: What’s it Like to Read This Book?
    • The fun of a campfire urban legend, but without all the cliche. I can enjoy a well-told creepy story even if I know where it’s going, but with a few exceptions, in this book I generally didn’t. She used all the classic tropes but kept taking me by surprise.
    • One reason the stories were so unique is that she drew on her memories of the Chinese Revolution and the various ensuing abuses of power. It adds an extra shiver when you remember that, hidden among the ghoulishness and drama, there is some element that real people suffered under. And I think that’s part of good horror, even the campy sort. There should be a real human feeling underneath, not just gore for gore’s sake. I thought this book got that balance perfectly right.
  • Other Shiny Stuff
    • After each story, in which she makes you agonizingly hungry for a dish and then creeps you out so fast you get whiplash, she gives you the recipe for the featured food. And you realize that as horrified as you were, you still want to try that goddamn murder dish. It’s pretty sadistic… and I need to buy this for myself to get those recipes.
    • Before returning this to the library, I did get to make tea eggs, long-life noodles and eight treasure rice. They were all great, and the recipes were easy to follow (although I did have to look up how to steam sweet rice for the eight treasure rice recipe).
    • She also includes notes on recent Chinese history, which was fascinating and got me curious to learn more. I know a lot more about ancient Chinese history than the more recent struggles, and I think that’s a massive problem in our education, especially considering what a huge player China is internationally.
    • Beautiful, ghostly, atmospheric illustrations.
  • Content Warnings
    • Multiple gory deaths, and if animal cruelty is too much for you, you might want to skip the tofu chapter.
  • Quotes
    • “When she looked up, the small figure of a girl stood in front of the henhouse, dressed in silk the color of moonlight. Her eyes pierced the storm with flames of hatred. As she bent down to pick up an empty bowl, her long wet hair, dark as ink, draped across her face.”